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“But the place, our place, has views you could only pray for if you were back there on the mainland . . . all balled up in that shithouse life that never stops, automobiles and trains and lunch counters, everybody running around like they’re in a race, some marathon to nowhere . . .” (p. 219)
Some men pursue wealth, some yearn for power, and others seek lives of selfreliance far from civilization’s ceaseless buzz. Will Waters and Herbie Lester are two of this last group. Both veterans of brutal wars, Waters and Lester journey to remote San Miguel Island searching for the peace and freedom that’s hitherto eluded them. Although their wives, Marantha Waters and Elise Lester, will never meet&151;and their respective sojourns on the island are separated by four decades&151;each woman will learn the incalculable cost of her husband’s dream.
Marantha is thirtyeight years old and suffering from tuberculosis when she signs over her remaining fortune so that Will can buy into a sheepranching operation on San Miguel. On New Year’s Day 1888, Will and Marantha set sail out of Santa Barbara with “her adopted daughter, Edith . . . bound for San Miguel Island and the virginal air Will insisted would make her well again” (p. 3).
Marantha’s expectations of sunshine and rural elegance are immediately dashed. San Miguel is the northernmost of California’s Channel Islands and thus unprotected from the Pacific Ocean’s relentless winds. Aside from the indigenous wildlife, sheep are the gray island’s primary tenants, and their smell pervades everything&151;even the leaky, roughhewn cabin that the Waters will call home.
The family slips into a dull routine infrequently broken by visits from their supply ship. While Waters works to improve their investment, Marantha grapples with failing health and interminable loneliness. Meanwhile, fifteenyearold Edith entertains her thespian dreams by casting herself as Miranda and their hired boy, Jimmie, as Caliban in an extended fantasy of The Tempest.
Shortly after the Waterses’ first anniversary on the island, household tensions come to a head and Marantha gets “her steamer trunk packed and ready to go” (p. 127). But as a minor, Edith finds she must rely upon her own wiles to escape her adopted stepfather’s dominion.
Like Marantha, Elise is thirtyeight when she first arrives on San Miguel in 1930. The former librarian is also an East Coast native and ignorant of sheep rearing and its incessant demands, but here her commonality with Marantha ends. Elise&151;already resigned to spinsterhood when Herbie proposed&151;would happily endure any privations for his sake.
They play Adam and Eve on San Miguel, and Elise enjoys “the slow unfolding of a peace and happiness so vast she couldn’t put a name to it” (p. 224). However, Herbie still bears physical and psychological wounds from World War I, and he and Elise struggle to preserve their lifestyle as they raise two young daughters in the shadow of the Great Depression and a looming war.
Throughout an acclaimed career spanning more than thirty years, T.C. Boyle has written stories and novels capturing the human experience and all its nuances of humor, hope and tragedy. In San Miguel, Boyle has crafted one of his most captivating tales yet: an epic story of a tiny island and the ordinary men and women who briefly sought to overcome the remorseless forces of nature and the merciless march of history.
T.C. Boyle is the author of thirteen novels, including World’s End, which won the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award; Drop City, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Women. He has also published nine collections of stories and was the recipient of the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. His stories regularly appear in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Paris Review and other major American magazines. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Boyle lives on the California coast, within sight of the Channel Islands.
Q. San Miguel is based on the experiences of two families that once inhabited the island. What is it about their stories&151;and not those of the island’s other homesteaders&151;that inspired you to write about them? Did you ever meet either Elizabeth Lester or her daughters?
These two stories, as revealed in diaries and memoirs, spoke most passionately to me, as opposed to the stories of earlier and interim homesteaders. I was drawn to the odd correspondences between Marantha’s and Elise’s stories, to how similar they were and how tragic ultimately. Sadly, Elise had died (in 1981) before I had an opportunity to meet her. Her memoir, The Legendary King of San Miguel, published in Santa Barbara in 1974, provided me with the details of her story&151;it’s a beautiful book. Betsy’s memoir is equally graceful and informative, though, of course, she was a very young girl when her father died and the family left San Miguel Island. I have had the privilege of meeting her during the annual Feast of the Holy Cross celebrations on Santa Cruz Island (the island that provides the setting of my previous novel When the Killing’s Done).
Q. Was there a real Edith Waters who escaped from the island to become an actress? Was there a real Jimmie who lived long enough to help both the Waterses and the Lesters?
Edith’s story is true to fact and is every bit as compelling as Marantha’s, but I chose to tell its conclusion in brief because it takes us off the island. As for Jimmie, he appears as a reallife personage in Marantha Waters’ diary, published by the Santa Cruz Island Foundation in A Step Back in Time: Unpublished Channel Islands Diaries (1990). I have created a character and background for him and allowed him to stay on the island so as to provide a bridge between the stories of the Waters and Lester families. In fact, I believe his tenure ended with that of Captain Waters.
Q. As a novelist, how do you decide where to supplement the facts with fiction?
When I am dealing with historical material, as I have in so many of my novels, such as The Women, The Inner Circle and Riven Rock, I try to stay as close to actual events as I can, simply because I find them so fascinating. My job is to dramatize these events, to try to understand and represent them from the points of view of the characters. History gives us the facts and figures; a novel gives us the human equation.
Q. Why did you choose to write about San Miguel through the eyes of the women who lived there? Is the novel ultimately a feminist critique of Emerson’s concept of selfreliance?
Initially I thought that the novel would rotate between the points of view of the women and men both, which would allow me to present what Captain Waters and Herbie Lester were thinking. But as I got into the project&151;as I began with those harrowing chapters of Marantha’s arrival on the island&151;I realized that the book would have more power and unity if it was told entirely from the point of view of the female characters. As for Emerson, he and Thoreau are never far from my thoughts. I see San Miguel as a continuation of my themes of searching for a place in nature and exploring the American utopian ideal.
Q. Even today, the island&151;now part of a national park with no yearround residents&151;is remote and difficult to access. Have you visited the island yourself? How long do you think you could handle the isolation?
Yes, I have visited the island and had the privilege of tramping its hills and dunes in the company of Marla Daily, the historian, and the park ranger who is the only resident of the island. As for isolation: I seek it in the Sierra Nevada, where I spent a good deal of my time, often alone, but close to the company of others. I wouldn’t want to be king of my own island at this juncture in my life&151;the buzz of society is too attractive&151;but I certainly have the energy and desire to have tried to make a go of it in Marantha’s day.
Q. You’re originally from Peekskill, New York, but you’ve been a longtime resident of Southern California. How does being an East Coast transplant affect your perceptions of your characters’ lives on San Miguel?
As I have said in previous interviews, this transplantation of my own skinny body and fevered mind from one coast to the other has been endlessly stimulating to me. I will always see the West Coast&151;its environment, its attitudes and people (cf. The Tortilla Curtain)&151;in the way of a fish out of water. It’s the Wild West out here, folks, and you’d better believe it. As for the trials of the Waters and Lester families, I see them as similar to those of the hippie characters of Drop City (2003), who tried to live off the land in Alaska, our final frontier.
Q. At one point, Elise drinks Postum&151;a coffee substitute created by C. W. Post&151;and thinks that it has “a taste nobody could like, except maybe C. W. Post himself when he was alive” (p. 276). Your novel The Road to Wellville was about John Harvey Kellogg and his rival, C. W. Post. After twentytwo novels and collections of short stories, do you see your fictional world coming full circle?
Again, one of the joys of being a fictioneer is to see how your themes and characters and beliefs grow and develop and echo from one book or story to the next. And yes, I love to plant references to previous works in my books, as, for example, mention of the container ship, the Tokachimaru, in both East Is East and When the Killing’s Done.
Q. There seem to be two T.C. Boyles: the brawny prose stylist who tackles the postapocalyptic present and the more traditional novelist who revisits the past with a combination of irony and sensitivity. Do you consciously decide to channel one or the other?
To my mind, a story will find its own mode of telling, and so if you examine all my work from the beginning, you will find just about every sort of storytelling there. I like to push and stretch myself and attempt to do things I haven’t done before&151;in this case, to create an extended narrative entirely from the point of view of the female characters, sans the postmodern touches you might find in some of my other historical settings.
Q. How&151;if at all&151;has the way you write changed over the years?
I still seek the joy of immersion in a story, the very same joy the reader experiences on the other end (and I am an avid reader). Each day I try to enter another world and stay there until my mind gets fuzzy and I have to quit work till the next day. In the interim, whether I’m sitting miles out in the Sierras with a book, doing yard work, cooking dinner or pouring a glass of wine, the artistic questions and choices of the story or novel stay with me until I can sit down again at the computer the following morning and move forward.
Q. What are you working on now? Are there any other stories from history that you’d like to revisit?
I have just finished the fourteen stories for a new volume of short fiction called A Death in Kitchawank after the title story, which appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. This book will be folded into the second volume of my collected stories, T.C. Boyle Stories II, which will be published by Viking next fall, after which, the following fall (2014), Penguin will publish a boxed set of both volumes in paperback. At the moment, I am catching my breath and beginning research for the next novel, which will likely have a contemporary setting.
- Have you ever dreamed of living off the grid? If so, what about the idea appeals to you? If not, how long do you think you could endure the isolation? Did San Miguel change your mind one way or another?
- What would you find most challenging about life on San Miguel: the limited human companionship, the rudimentary living conditions, the monotony of the landscape, or something else?
- Marantha’s forgotten box of china plates represents the distant, civilized world. What would represent it for you?
- Long before the Waterses or the Lesters, a tribe of Native Americans inhabited the island. How might their experiences on San Miguel have compared with those of the homesteaders?
- After Marantha’s death, Waters withdraws Edith from school and takes her to San Miguel so he can keep an eye on her. Yet it’s on San Miguel that she explores her sexuality with Jimmie and then barters sexual favors in order to escape. Is Waters really concerned with preserving her chastity?
- Were you surprised to learn that Edith would marry and divorce three times and put her own daughter up for adoption? How&151;if at all&151;are Edith’s later actions shaped by her experiences on San Miguel?
- Both Marantha and Elise are brought to the island by their husbands. Neither woman has much say in the matter. Whether or not you’re married, would you make such a dramatic move at your spouse’s request?
- During their time on the island, Marantha and Elise both receive unexpected foreign visitors. Chinese abalone collectors visit Marantha, and Japanese fishermen call upon Elise. The women welcome these visitors politely, but their husbands drive them away. Why did Boyle choose to include these incidents?
- Marantha’s time on San Miguel is pure hardship, but Elise’s is tempered with happiness. If you were Elise, would you have regretted marrying Herbie and moving to San Miguel? Or are her joys sufficient compensation for the tragedy of his suicide?
- After Herbie’s death, what do you think Marianne and Betsy will find most challenging about adjusting to life off San Miguel?
- How might modern technology affect the experience of living somewhere like San Miguel Island? Would greater connectivity to the larger world make the isolation easier or more difficult?
- Ultimately, the government revokes Bob Brooks’s lease on San Miguel, takes away all the sheep, and makes it so that “anyone who wanted to come here or dream here or walk the hills and breathe the air would need to have a permit in hand” (p. 366). Do you agree with the government’s decision? How does Boyle view it?